Change can be hard… no matter what?

In this webinar Hannah White demonstrated how coaching techniques can be used to support change, whether a massive change or achieving a personal goal. She also explored the reasons that we find change so difficult and how these can be alleviated.

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Why is change hard, even when we choose it?

In this section Hannah explored the reasons behind people finding change hard, even when they themselves have chosen it, and what we can do to alleviate this difficulty so that individuals impacted by change projects that they have not chosen are able to cope with the change.

The two systems in your brain: rational and emotional

Think of your brain as a human rider on top of an elephant, the rider represents the rational system, that’s the part of us that plans and problem solves. The elephant represents the emotional system and it is this part that brings the power behind any decision. Therefore, the rider might try to lead or drag the elephant in a certain direction but if they disagree the elephant will win. It is this power imbalance that makes adopting new behaviours hard. If you want this duo to go in a certain direction you also need to think about the path, which represents the external environment, the easier and shorter the path the more likely they are to complete the journey. Therefore, if you want to lead change you have to do 3 things: give direction to the rider (knowledge of how to get to the destination), motivate the elephant (tap into emotion) and shape the path to allow for easy progress.

The evolution of the human brain

To understand how our brains respond to change we need to consider how our brains have evolved over time. We began with a reptilian brain which makes automatic decisions to keep us safe and this is where our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response is triggered. We then evolved and developed another layer of brain on top of the reptilian layer, which is the mammalian layer. This layer is associated with connections and emotions because mammals form relationships and take care of their young. This part of the brain is the ‘elephant’ when we consider the brain through the elephant and rider analogy. The mammalian brain is short term focussed and will choose short term wins over long term goals. We then finally evolved to have a human brain on top of these other two layers. This part of your brain is capable of very complex analysis and planning and it can think in the long term. This is the ‘rider’ in the analogy.

The elephant:

All the good things about who you are, everything you care about and your sense of who you are comes from this part of your brain. The elephant bit of your brain does the heavy lifting when making decisions, so we have to make sure that we have it on board. However, the issue with the elephant part of your brain is it’s quite impulsive, stubborn and thinks in the short term. This causes problems when we are thinking about long term goals or very abstract ideas as the elephant struggles to see why it should care and then it either gets stubborn or distracted.

Things to remember: what looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

If someone’s elephant is not on board then they will become exhausted from the effort their rider is putting in to drag them along

The rider:

The rider is an incredible evolutionary development that is capable of extremely complex analysis. This is the part of your brain that can make long term plans and think about abstract goals and ideas. However, the rider can get overwhelmed by the multitude of choices during decision making and so become paralysed.

Things to remember: what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.

If someone is asking the same questions over and over again this can be seen as a sign of resistance. However, it is often due to someone feeling they do not have enough information to understand how the decision process is working.

It is also important to remember that what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. Rather than trying to change how an individual’s brain is dealing with the situation, you should change the situation to better suit the behaviour you are trying to encourage.

What can we do to make change easier?

The first step we need to take is to reduce the fear. When we are told to change our first response is fear because the first part of our brain to respond is the reptilian one, which is in charge of looking for threats.

The SCARF model is a good model to use to look at how the change that you are proposing might cause fear in your impacted stakeholders.

The first thing to do when trying to tackle these causes of fear is to acknowledge that when you are making changes, other things are affected and some of them will threaten individuals, or will be perceived to be threatening. Once you have acknowledged this, you then need to have a plan to resolve it. Resolving it may involve supporting the staff member to recognise that the threat won’t last forever and that if they can work through it then ultimately things will be better.

Tackling the elephant:

Once we have tackled the fears around a project, we then need to tap into motivation and to do this we need to tap into their sense of identity and their emotions (the elephant). Motivate the elephant in the right direction with stories, which align the individual to the project goal and allow them to see what is in it for them. Why should they want it and why should they care?

Helping the rider know how to work:

The rider is the part of your brain that makes decisions but it gets overwhelmed by decision paralysis. To help this we need to make it clear how decisions get made, for example for using decision maps, which clearly outline the decision making process at each stage. Hannah also recommends exploring the Prosci ADKAR model, for understanding how to help the rider through the change process.

This session was delivered by Hannah White, Senior Business Change Manager | University of Manchester. You can access a recording of the session below:

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